Hitting the Wall

In long distance running it’s called “hitting the wall” – that moment when your legs and your lungs tell you, “this is it”, you’re running on empty and there’s nothing left to give. Many quit at that moment, fearing long term injury – even death. Others trudge on. And the rewards, they tell me, can be incalculable. There’s an unexpected release of adrenalin, there’s the finish line and then… when’s the next race?

For a small business, hitting the wall can mean many things, worst of which is stagnation. You have the same products or services and try to sell them to the same list of potential buyers. In a dynamic marketplace that can mean death – slow, ugly death.

I know a little about that race. I owned a small business that grew steadily for ten years until we hit the wall. We needed larger clients to balance the one large account that represented 60 percent of our business. My company had hit the wall.

I followed all the conventional runner’s tricks. I looked for gurus, seeking advice from the mentors who had enticed me into running this crazy race in the first place. We bought into our trade organization’s “growing your business” seminars. And we worked on our productivity, investing in the latest computer technology and internal billing and job tracking systems. We won awards and hyped our award-winner image. I even bought a building – a city landmark – so we might be perceived as a big player worthy of bigger accounts.

However, we continued to be left off the short list for larger regional accounts. We even created a new business of our own – a very expensive mistake, but certainly not fatal. No, what killed me was “the wall”. I couldn’t get us through it and I started thinking I was the problem. Everyone else in the company seemed satisfied running shorter races, why not me?

After giving a rare new business presentation to a large statewide bank – one where I used a personal friend in the local branch to arrange – I waited breathlessly for the prospect’s response. I could tell, this guy was impressed. So, when I expectantly asked for the business and how we might proceed, he flushed. “I can’t tell you how good this stuff you showed me is. We started our review process a couple months ago and asked for presentations from large and smaller companies such as yours. Yours was one of the best I’ve seen. You definitely would have made the short list. But we’re down to two firms now and we’re announcing our decision on Monday. Basically, it’s too late. When Mickey (my friend) asked me to come, I agreed as a courtesy, not expecting to see anything like this. I’m terribly sorry.”

My staff shrugged and returned to their desks. I climbed the spiral stairs to my comfy corner office, closed the door and said aloud to no one, “it’s over”. In the weeks following I offered to sell the business to my two senior execs and within nine months I was gone. Race over, I hit the wall.

If the internet were available then, I’m certain we could have shattered that wall.

On the net, good companies with innovative products and services don’t have to spend their time, money and energy setting up offices in expensive locations. They can invest resources in good people, ideas and the support they need. They can present their work to a worldwide audience and know that they don’t have to spend their life in airports and their capital managing real estate. Of course, the competition is tougher, the timeframes are ridiculous and the competition for personnel has never been greater. But the potential rewards… Wow.

Online marketing comes with its own real estate in the form of webpages. All it takes to own a virtual landmark is a clever concept, an idea – a very good idea – and the willingness to do the work to deliver on its promise. And that makes the business of promoting those webpages in all its creative forms so damn important.

Optimization, analytics, online research, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, advertising, media placement, PR – and integrating them all to be most effective – has never been more crucial. The constant uncertainties of “what’s next” keep everything tantalizingly unsettling.

There are still walls in this new paradigm. But all serious runners have a trainer. When you go looking for help to get to that illusive finish line, remember: others before you have run that race. They can get you there. Find them. We’re in that business and we can get you through that wall. That’s how I get my daily adrenalin rush these days. And all of us here are looking for that next great race.